Tyre Nichols’s Death Is What Happens When You Get “Tough on Crime”
As soon as it became electorally inconvenient, the Democrats largely dropped their support for police reform and adopted a crime-fighting approach straight out of the ’90s. The result: shocking police murders like Tyre Nichols’s have become more common.
If the fact that police killings have reached record highs the past two years didn’t make it clear, the brutal murder of Tyre Nichols should: tragically little has changed since the unprecedented George Floyd protests of 2020.
Nichols’s murder — in which he was viciously beaten by a group of Memphis police officers during a traffic stop — has prompted more calls for the unfinished business of police reform. But what exactly is the way forward?
As commentators have pointed out, many of the liberal reform efforts put forward as a solution were already in place when Nichols was killed: Memphis had banned choke holds and no-knock raids, its police department had put in place mandates for de-escalation and intervention by fellow officers in cases of brutality, it’s had training for implicit bias and cultural awareness in place for some time, and the cops that beat him to death were all wearing body cameras. Those officers also all happened to be black, as is the city’s police chief. Most depressingly, this comes after several high-profile, successful prosecutions of killer cops, including in Memphis, which anti-brutality campaigners hoped would have a deterrent effect.
It’s hard to say what else could have been and should be done to prevent this and other tragedies. There’s the ongoing existence of “qualified immunity,” the legal doctrine that makes police untouchable by lawsuits when they violate people’s rights. Local activists have called for the use of a 2020 ordinance that tracks and makes public data about police activities, the total removal of police from traffic enforcement and ending the use of unmarked cars and plainclothes police, and the disbanding of specialized police units like SCORPION, which was responsible for Nichols’s death (this last demand has been met).
We might also look at the activist demands made at the time of Memphis’s 2020 reforms, which included dissolving the city’s police department entirely before rebuilding it from the ground up. Similarly controversial was the demand to prohibit police from carrying guns on their physical person, as nineteen countries do (an idea that doesn’t mean barring police from using firearms at all), or to increase the markedly low (by global standards) level of training officers get before they’re sent out into the field — something that would need to be paired with ending the widespread practice of “warrior training” that primes cops to view the communities they’re meant to protect as hostile forces.
We should also be aware of the limits of some of these measures, even as we pursue them. If prosecuting cops wasn’t enough to deter the explosion in US police killings, ending qualified immunity isn’t likely to be a silver bullet either. Where police departments have been dissolved and rebuilt, like in Camden, New Jersey, in 2012, the results have been more complicated and less clear-cut than reformers would hope. And while limiting the easy use of firearms for police might make a difference in cases like that of Anthony Lowe — the mentally unwell double-amputee who cops killed last week as he ran away from them — it wouldn’t have made a difference in the Nichols’s case, where he was beaten to death by unarmed police.
One thing is clear, though: whatever the solutions are, the police-first approach taken by so many Democrats is not one of them. After using the George Floyd protests as electoral grist and paying symbolic but materially empty tribute to the movement through 2020, President Joe Biden and the Democrats turned on it once safely elected, routinely denouncing its demands and blaming it for successive electoral underperformances. After failing to pass a police reform bill, Biden called for and signed into law funding to boost police numbers. He even urged state and local governments to use the stimulus money meant to help Americans weather pandemic-driven economic chaos for law enforcement, which they did to the tune of tens of billions of dollars.
State and local Democrats have followed Biden’s lead on a policy and rhetorical level, with some using the American Rescue Plan funds to pay for the kind of “hot spot” policing that Tyre Nichols ended up on the wrong side of. The SCORPION police unit was a direct product of the tough-on-crime strategy Democratic officials at every level pursued in response to the post-pandemic rise in crime and the electoral fears around it, with predictably tragic results. Memphis, in fact, was one of the cities that expressly spent the pandemic aid on law enforcement, announcing two months before the unit’s creation that it would use the once-in-a-lifetime federal dollars from pandemic aid to hire more police and create a new felony assault unit.
Just as predictably, liberal commentators now cast this trend as purely Republican doing, but this was in no small part driven by that very segment of the press. While the rise in crime is very real and people’s concerns about it can’t simply be hand-waved away, as Bloomberg, the Nation, and others have pointed out, the public has also been consistently misled by the media about the severity of the problem through sensationalist reporting that often seems more devoted to driving up fear than putting events in context. Now, in the wake of Nichols’s murder, these outlets seem to be experiencing something like buyer’s remorse.
The real solution to the endemic police violence that makes the United States unique in the developed world is probably going to be varying degrees of all of the above: from reducing the police’s role in things like traffic enforcement and mental health crises to improving training, enforcing accountability, and overhauling entire departments where the situation demands it. Most importantly, it’ll mean enacting the kind of program that socialists around the country won on these past midterms of putting funding and resources into affordable housing, poverty alleviation, and mental health to solve the root causes that turn neighborhoods into “hot spots” in the first place. It’s telling that the biggest factor in solving Camden’s policing woes wasn’t so much a new police force but gentrification pushing poverty out of the city.
What would make Nichols’s death even more tragic is if the liberal establishment responds by simply hanging their heads in sadness for a few seconds, then quickly forgetting, moving on, and continuing to push, in the name of centrism, for a version of the 1990s disastrous approach to combating crime, one that has seen the lives of Nichols and so many others ruined or ended entirely. Tyre Nichols’s death should never have happened. We should try and make sure it at least means something.